Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Taking a Day Trip to Joshua Tree from LA

Are you visiting LA for a few days and want to get out to see Joshua Tree? Taking a day trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park is completely doable as long as you plan ahead. Here is what you need to know.

What you’ll need

  • A full day: Joshua Tree is 2–3 hours East of LA and you’ll want at least 5 hours to go through the park. Add in meals and you’ve used a full day.
  • A rental car: A car is the easiest way to get to the park and see things on your own schedule.
  • Water and snacks: The desert is very hot, so water is necessary and salty snacks will help replenish those electrolytes. We purchased a couple gallons for the car and refilled our water bottles before each hike. These things aren’t readily available in the park, so plan ahead.
  • Sunscreen: The sun is intense. Get some good sunscreen and reapply often.
  • Comfortable clothes and shoes: You’ll want to get out and do some hiking. Even if you only take short, established trails, good footwear and breathable clothes will make your day more pleasant. Take a light hat if you don’t want to burn your forehead like I did.

Itinerary

Amanda and I took this trip last weekend. Here is the itinerary we used. Feel free to use it as a base!

Mid-Morning: LA to Coachella Valley

Leave LA by 8am. Grab some coffee and a breakfast sandwich on the road, and set your GPS for Palm Springs or Indio. Turn on some tunes and settle in for a 2–3 hour drive. Cross your fingers that LA traffic won’t be too bad.

When you stop in Palm Springs or Indio, fill up your gas tank, pick up the water, sunscreen, and snacks if you haven’t already done so. Grab a quick sandwich if you are hungry because the park doesn’t have food.

Make sure to wrap up any cell phone communications before driving into the park. There is pretty much zero reception in the park, so plan accordingly.

Late-Morning: Cottonwood Spring

Enter the park from the south entrance at Cottonwood Spring. There are a few cool things to do there:

  • Pick up some park merch at the visitor center.
  • Check out the wildflowers and cacti around the visitor center.
  • Drive down the road off to the right to Cottonwood Spring and do the short Mastodon Loop hike. You see some incredible views and the hike isn’t strenuous.

Early Afternoon: Ocotillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden

After your hike, hop back in the car and start driving north. Your first stop will be the Ocotillo Patch. These plants aren’t cacti, but deciduous shrubs. We saw hummingbirds visiting the flowers!

After the Ocotillo Patch, drive a little further north to the Cholla Cactus Garden. This is a dense area of cactus with a nice walking path. Pick up a guide at the trail entrance to learn about all the different Cholla varieties.

After admiring the Chollas, drive up to the White Tank campground. If you’ve been drinking enough water to stay hydrated, you’ll probably need to hit the restroom. There are primitive restrooms at most camping areas in the park.

While at White Tank, take a walk around the rock formations. Arch Rock Trail is a short half-mile loop.

This area is in the middle of where the park starts to transition from the Colorado desert environment to the Mojave desert environment. You’ll spot your first Joshua Trees around here!

Mid-to-Late Afternoon: Scull Rock, Jumbo Rocks, Desert Queen Mine, Sheep Pass, and Hidden Valley

After White Tank, drive a little further north, then turn West (left) at the main intersection toward Joshua Tree. There are a variety of things to do along this stretch of road:

  • Climb around Scull Rock and Jumbo Rocks
  • Admire the thousands of Joshua trees
  • Go down a dirt road and hike up to the Desert Queen Mine
  • Take a walk around Sheep Pass
  • Hike around Hidden Valley

Take your time and take in the scenery. Have a few snacks between stops. This is one of the busiest areas of the park, but as long as you can find parking, you are just a short hike from solitude. We stopped many times along the road to admire cacti and Joshua trees.

Late Afternoon: Keys View

After a fun afternoon climbing on rocks and taking photos of Joshua Trees, hop back in the car and drive a few miles south to Keys View. It seems a little bit out of the way, but you get incredible views up here of the entire Coachella Valley. If you've timed your day correctly, you can admire the beginnings of a sunset from up here.

Evening

After Keys View, you can drive back to the main road and continue heading toward Joshua Tree and the park’s West entrance. Stop at Quail Springs for one last desert romp and then pull over to snap a few more photos of the incredible rocks as the sun is setting.

As you exit the park from the west entrance, resist the urge to stop at the first restaurant you see in Joshua Tree. Keep driving west for a few more miles to Yucca Valley. There are a ton more food options here and they are less likely to be packed with tourists. You can also drop by the Walmart or Walgreens to pick up some aloe for your sunburn.

Make sure you get the driver some caffeine for the journey back to LA. We expected it to take roughly two hours like on the way out, but we got caught in unexpected Sunday night traffic and it ended up taking three and a half hours to get back.